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Christa Wüthrich is an independant journalist. She has worked as an author, teacher and IKRK delegate nationally as well as internationally.

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If you aren’t authentic, you don’t stand a chance.

If you aren’t authentic, you don’t stand a chance.

Teaching is like conducting: Orchestras and school classes are both tense places characterized by authority, individualism and shortness of time. Conductor and university lecturer Graziella Contratto knows both worlds.

How do teachers answer the question of which job best corresponds to their self-image as a teacher? If you believe a study from Israel in which 60 teachers from a vocational school took part, teachers see themselves as zookeepers, followed by conductors and shop owners. Teachers with top-performing classes often compare themselves to conductors, but teachers with low-performing classes identify more with the image of zookeepers.

“I think a conductor is a suitable comparison,” Graziella Contratto says. The conductor who grew up in the Swiss city of Schwyz should know. She is a classically trained pianist, music theorist and music director. The public knows Contratto primarily as a chief conductor, artistic director and lecturer. A native of central Switzerland, she also served as head of the music department at Bern University of the Arts until 2022, a position which she held for eleven years.

One job: myriad aspects
Contratto emphasizes that a good conductor has the skills of a traffic cop, shaman, coach and psychologist. Traffic cops exude calm and order; you need them at times when clear instructions and close supervision are necessary. Shamans embody a vision and are known for handling things enthusiastically and with charisma. Coaches, on the other hand, work in the interpersonal arena where personal contact matters most; they are popular, approachable people. Psychologists, finally, focus on creating harmony and addressing anxiety.

“For my mother, good grades were proof that I was doing well, that I was attuned to the world around me.”

“It’s important to find the right combination of all these leadership styles so you can lead in accordance with the situation,” explains the conductor, Graziella Contratto. This means: Be attuned to the flow and mindful of the facts. Create closeness but still keep enough distance. Promote individuality while developing the “big picture.”

For Contratto, the requirements for being a good conductor are the same as those for being a good teacher: a mixture of knowledge, experience, emotional intelligence and the ability to lend support.

An achievement-oriented upbringing
Graziella Contratto’s own school experiences continue to shape her to this day. Raised in a strict, Catholic environment, she had an achievement-oriented, authoritarian upbringing. In elementary school in Schwyz, one teacher was in charge of 33 children. “For my mother, good grades were proof that I was doing well, that I was attuned to the world around me,” recalls Contratto, who is now 57. As a child, Graziella learned to play the violin and the piano and also to read Latin. She fulfilled her parents’ high expectations and continues to excel to this day, given that she is one of only a handful of women who conduct internationally at a world-class level. This master of music is convinced that her school years laid the foundation for certain accomplishments she has achieved in her life so far – be they personal, academic or musical.

It was Contratto’s 15-year-old daughter who, along with the Swiss curriculum known as “Lehrplan 21,” gave her a new perspective on schools. “Teachers have a lot to do,” Contratto says. “It’s harder than ever to figure out how classroom life is structured. Everything has to be interactive, playful and user-friendly.” She adds that schools frown upon discipline and drills. At least, this is her view of the education system as a mother.

Although the Swiss curriculum aims to break down structures and promote freedom of learning, learners often reveal a need for control and authority. In fact, Contratto experienced this as a lecturer and head of the music department at Bern University of the Arts. “What is surprising is that these learners often have a strong need for authority and clear instructions,” Contratto says, describing her impressions. “They demand that lecturers take on the role of traffic cop, where a shaman is what they really need,” Contratto says. Recalling her experience as a new orchestra leader in France, she adds: “The orchestra expected a leadership style à la Napoleon, but firmly insisted on having a say.”

“The orchestra expected a leadership style à la Napoleon, but firmly insisted on having a say.”

Learning and creativity need time
Today, young conductors often lack the time for individual development. “They watch ten different interpretations of a work on TikTok or YouTube,” the seasoned conductor says, describing her observations. “They don’t have enough time to perform their own analysis, to come up with their own interpretation and to learn things on their own. Understanding and development often fall by the wayside or make way for mediocre copies.” There isn’t enough time or space for development, two factors that also shape a teacher’s everyday life.

Can you still compare an orchestra to a school class? With an orchestra, it’s the performance that counts. At school, it’s the progress of the individual learner that counts, which is an expression of integrative and individualized instruction. Aren’t these two very different worlds?

“As I see it, the two worlds are still very similar,” Contratto says with conviction. “Conductors and teachers serve a greater good. When conducting, it is the beauty of the music that matters, in other words, the ability to interpret a work as perfectly as possible. With teaching, it’s about the value of education.” While tests and grades make school very achievement-oriented, in orchestras the individual’s ability to shine is ultimately the most important factor. “Musicians go through a demanding audition process and then a probationary period,” she says. “Orchestras require individuality and personal development but also a musician’s ability to integrate and become part of a collective.”

“Conductors and teachers serve a greater good.”

One of the best-known training centers for young musicians, the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic, banks on collective power to pass on a musical tradition. Students learn not just from but also by taking part in a community with top professionals. As for musicians and conductors in most orchestras, the era of the diva is over. It takes courage to be humble. If you’re not authentic, you don’t stand a chance.

Authenticity is an essential attribute for all leaders to possess. The conductor Graziella Contratto explains the reasons for this in her leadership workshops. When a new person is put in charge of a professional ensemble for the first time, it becomes clear within seconds whether clarity and passion prevail – or shyness, or even arrogance.

There is no patent recipe
Last August, teachers at the “Learn-coaching makes you strong” conference at the University of Applied Sciences, Northwestern Switzerland, also had the opportunity to discover possible parallels between the world of the classical orchestra and that of the classroom led by a teacher. The workshop focused on questions such as: How do you lead? What type of work relationships make people happy in both schools and orchestras? However, as a conductor, Contratto cannot offer a patent recipe on how firmly you should direct an orchestra or school class in order to achieve success – nor on how much leeway is necessary to demand and promote personal responsibility. To listen carefully, to set the tone clearly and to always remain tactful – those seem to be good starting points.

published February 2024 / “Bildung Schweiz” (02/24): www.bildungschweiz.ch

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